Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

The City of Irpin in Ukraine announced in early July that it would begin the production of an inspirational mural as a symbol of international friendship with its Sister City of Milwaukee, for display at Mitchell Airport.

The ambitious artwork project took some early inspiration from a series of murals installed around war-damaged areas of Iprin in 2022 by international artists, including Banksy. But the main catalyst came from the backlash over a Soviet-era mural donated by the city of St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad.

The clay artwork had been on display at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport since the last days of the Cold War in 1989. It was covered up in March of 2022 amid the widespread anti-Russian protests in Milwaukee over the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While the proposed Irpin mural was not directly intended to replace the physical space occupied by the very large Russian clay mural, the core idea was to elevate attention away from the controversial artwork by showcasing Milwaukee’s Sister City bond with Irpin.

During her recent meeting in Irpin with city leaders to discuss humanitarian projects, Anya Verkhovskaya, director of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Friends of Be an Angel, also offered feedback on Mayor Oleksandr Markushin’s mural idea.

“When the war started, the Russian mural was covered and it remains an empty wall at the airport,” said Verkhovskaya. “During their video meeting on June 27, Mayor Markushin suggested to Mayor Cavalier Johnson that the wall should be repurposed, or perhaps a more appropriate space set aside, in honor of Irpin. That way all the people who live in the Metro Milwaukee area, which is about 2.5 million, as well as all the travelers who come and go through the airport, will learn about the ‘Hero City of Irpin’ and its special relationship with Milwaukee.”

The main concept for the project involves the children of Irpin, who would create artwork for the airport display. Possibilities for physical and digital installations are being considered.

“We envision a time in the near future when a mural created by the talented children of Irpin will be on display at Milwaukee Mitchell Airport, symbolizing the deep and enduring Sister City friendship between our two communities,” said Mayor Markushin in a post on social media. “It is through initiatives like this that we can foster cross-cultural understanding, promote better awareness, and inspire future generations to embrace unity and friendship. I look forward to the day when this vision becomes a reality, and the mural serves as a testament to the lasting connection between Irpin and Milwaukee.”

Another idea for the project also involves a series of mural displays that rotates artwork by different artists over a year. It could have a reciprocal component where murals from Milwaukee artists are concurrently displayed in Irpin.

The hope from the City of Irpin is to get Milwaukee’s vibrant and diverse art community involved in the process, which is one of the purposes of the Sister City program – to create cultural exchanges and opportunities to promote peace and understanding.

Plans are already underway for a cooperative construction project that would see the Milwaukee business community help build a new world-class art center in Irpin.

Mayor Markushin said that the mural initiative could open the door for more creative partnerships, like the Milwaukee Bucks sponsoring the rebuilding of a team-branded basketball court at one of the schools in Irpin damaged during the Russian invasion.

On March 15, 2018, then-mayor of Milwaukee Tom Barrett signed an agreement with Irpin’s then-Mayor Karplyuk, formalizing the Sister City relationship that had been approved by the Common Council.

Further details for the Sister City mural remain to be worked out between city, county, and airport officials.

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Series: Return to Ukraine

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CODAworx and City of Irpin

Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war